You are on page 1of 15

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 1 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom Nicholas

Hangca Abstract As a child, I never experienced a lot of active engagement in school and did my work because I knew it needed to get done in order for me to succeed. As a teacher, I struggled with effectively planning and constructing meaningful learning tasks for my students who struggled with being intrinsically motivated, motivated without needing rewards, to complete tasks. Using research on intrinsic motivation to guide it, this study focuses on how to effectively facilitate independent study projects in the classroom. I designed a series of three separate independent study projects for my fourth grade students to complete over the course of eight weeks. I found how difficult it is to plan for independent study projects because my students had a lot of difficulties in completing their projects. This suggests the importance of careful teacher planning and scaffolding the independent project completion process for students, aside from allowing for students to make choices and fulfill their needs for autonomy and competence in the classroom. Context and Rationale [Edited] The classroom behavior during IWT frustrated me greatly because I provided students time to work on their own without my interference, but they acted out despite this. Were my students being so overwhelmingly disrespectful to each other and to me on purpose? Or were the activities I provided them not engaging enough? Was it my providing the activities that spawned the problem? Whatever the case, I knew I needed to take a different approach to IWT, because my students were not responding positively to the tasks. They needed to be forcibly motivated to complete their IWT tasks. My goal as a teacher was not to force kids to do things they didnt want to do, so I knew either the tasks I was giving my students needed to be different or my approach to IWT needed to change. I wanted to learn how to implement independent learning tasks, specifically independent study projects, for my students. My philosophy of education served as my guide to form the groundwork of my inquiry. I chose independent study projects and designed them to create active participants and dissuade passivity in my students. The students chose topics because they need to be able to form their own opinions about the subject matter we learn about. They need not rely solely upon my input, Fourth Grade

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 2 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom but rather take initiative and look beyond what is found on the surface of a text. With the projects, students take information they gather and apply it to a variety of contexts. My hope was for students to develop passion about their topics, to increase their motivation. Students were to assume the roles of researchers in every project as well as historians and either biographers or scientists, allowing them to view the subject matter through multiple perspectives. They consulted multiple sources to find information about their topics, using internet websites and books as their primary resource, not the standard textbooks the students were overwhelmingly familiar with. To support the students transformation into thinking more critically, asking more questions and coming up with in-depth responses, I served as a guide to provide structure for the projects and encouragement to help validate their thinking. The projects, with the goal of creating more critically thinking individuals in mind, incorporated ideas from my personal philosophy, but I was no means an expert and I needed guidance. The first place I looked for direction was the theories and research about effective ways to develop independent tasks and get students intrinsically motivated to complete them. [Edited] Guiding Studies Independent Learning One of my goals, as evident by my previous experiences with my class, was to foster an environment for independent learners to work. Independent learning is part of an ongoing, lifelong, process of education that stimulates greater thoughtfulness and reflection and promotes the continuing growth of students capabilities and powers (Kesten, 1987, p. 1). Independent learners are students who self-motivate, self-manage, and self-appraise, persevere despite distractions, avoid procrastination, stay on task despite setbacks, understand that learning takes

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 3 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom time, and need minimal reminders and prompts to reach their goals (Murdoch & Wilson, 2006, p. 2). Since my students are only fourth graders, acquiring these characteristics are not easy for them or me, as their teacher. However, there are some practices I can implement to assist me in achieving this goal. Teaching and modeling independent learning skills is a necessity since independent learning is a gradual process. A teacher needs to model and allow students to practice the learning skills. Repeated modeling needs to occur until the student can do the activity without cues from the teacher, and gradually takes over the actions (Kesten, 1987, p. 7). Modeling once is not sufficient to allow students to become independent enough to complete their tasks. The transferring of responsibility occurs by the teacher showing students how; provide practice; have students structure activities; finally, have them use the activities independently (p. 7). Transferring of control is vital to the success of developing independent learners, since it leads to students discovering how their efforts can affect their learning and from it they acquire motivation to continue learning (p. 7). Even though I play a crucial role in modeling, I have to step aside and allow the students to take their proper role in becoming independent learners. As a teacher, I need to let go and retreat to the ubiquitous role of guide on the side (Murdoch & Wilson, 2006, p. 2). My assumptions about my students need to change to view them as capable of assuming some responsibility, making decisions, and managing choice and time (p. 2). If I allow my assumptions to interfere with the tasks I set up, it will negatively affect my students performance. Giving students busy work does not translate well to independent learners, and I have seen its negative effects in my classroom. I need to design tasks geared toward bringing students to increased independence and self-management through tiered tasks

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 4 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom (p. 4). A final role for the teacher is to [determine] learning objectives and [monitor] individual progress, because of its importance for facilitating learning (p. 3). The learning environment needs to be set up to create a supportive environment that encourages students motivation, self-confidence, curiosity and desire to learn (Kesten, 1987, p. 5). I need to set up relevant stimuli within my classroom to encourage my students in completing their projects. To produce an environment that is sensitive, flexible and responsive to the learners needs, I have to find out what my students needs are through surveys, everyday interactions, and journal entries. If I create independent study projects the students hate, I need to know they hate them and alter the projects and accommodate my students accordingly. Creating independent learners in my classroom requires time, patience, and support as well as careful planning and will prove to be a challenge for me. III. Analysis/Findings My least favorite part of IWT is when [we] do Must Do. Julie Independent study projects needed to be introduced into my classroom as an alternative to the whole-group instruction and boring IWT routines they were used to. The majority of my class grew weary of the same IWT routine, and many became frustrated because of the way some students chose to behave during this time. On the other hand, many liked the idea of IWT and working by themselves in a quiet atmosphere because it broke away from the whole-class instruction the students had grown accustomed to receiving all-day, everyday. A majority of my class responded in their surveys by claiming their favorite part of IWT was the May-Dos because they were fun, and they could dictate what they wanted to finish for the day. The same students responded to the survey saying the least favorite part of their day was when they had to complete a lot of Must Dos, a clear indication how the students view teacher-

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 5 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom dictated assignments as tedious and overwhelming. My high-achieving student, Gabriela, mentioned the work during IWT was sometimes easy. Independent study projects came along at the right time to provide my students with an opportunity to complete an independent assignment, which allowed them to make choices, work at their own pace, and the assignment could match each students academic level, since my class was composed of a wide variety of ability and linguistic abilities. When I went back and analyzed what my students were able to do, as well as reflected on what I did as a teacher of independent study projects, I found many themes emerging. Erroneous Assumptions At the beginning of the inquiry process, I made many fatal assumptions about my role as a teacher. I was nave to think, based on the research, that choice alone would intrinsically motivate my students. After five weeks of completing their picture books, it did not matter whether or not my students had a choice in their survival topic, if I neglected to perform my job along the way. I failed to understand how complex of a role I would play in my classroom during the independent study projects. Based on multiple research sources on independent learning, I should have known my job was very important to the success of my students completing their projects. In transitioning from primarily whole-class, teacher-dominated instruction to independent study projects, I wanted and thought it was best to minimize my presence in the classroom, despite what the research clearly stated I had to do. I thought by putting a lot of planning into the projects and designing them with many different components, my students would have so much to do and they would not need me. If my students struggled, I hoped they would figure out what to do from the brief modeling I did at the beginning of IWT each day. I

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 6 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom would be the guide on the side Murdoch and Wilson (2006) spoke about, there to provide support and encouragement, but my role turned out to be much greater than I anticipated since I failed to do the job they spoke of prior to becoming the guide. What ended up happening reinforced what the research said and I had to make up for making faulty assumptions. Too Little Structure My students spent four full weeks working on a project, but some had little to show for it (See Appendix D). Eight students either turned in a picture book with a colorful cover but a blank inside or nothing at all. I attributed this lack of productivity to lack of structure. The students, who were used to finishing every assignment without asking questions, had no difficulty completing a picture book, even though they might not have been one hundred percent clear how to create one. I found it difficult to motivate and inspire my unproductive students to finish their work, but ultimately, they needed to have a desire to complete it. My students needed to be more driven to complete their work, and it was obvious I did not set up the task properly to optimize their learning. During the first five weeks of inquiry, it was extremely difficult to judge whether the students felt more intrinsically motivated to complete their picture books, as my classroom erupted into the same chaotic state during the IWT must-dos and may-dos. I noticed my students were pretty captivated as they researched their survival topics, but I felt their captivation had more to do with using the computers than the project itself. Despite their intrigue in their topics, most students were not able to complete their research in the computer lab because they spent their time either researching several topics, ignoring the research questions they needed to answer about their topic, or they were researching their own topic by looking at videos and pictures.

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 7 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom In my early stages of planning for the picture book project, using principles from metacognition, I provided a research log for my students as they worked in the computer lab the very first week to keep track of the websites they visited. Most students had never used a log to keep track of their work before, which caused some confusion for them. On the other hand, the research log kept track of the progress my students made each day and served to keep several students on task. Benji, an ELD 4 student, who struggled on a daily basis in comprehending my instructions, used his research log for every website he found and was very thorough in what he wrote down (See Appendix E). He wrote down the website he found his information from (www.google.com), followed by the information he pulled out from each site he used to answer his research questions. If some of the students could use this to become cognitively aware of the progress they were making, I had to provide this for every project I gave them from now on, to make them feel like they are being held accountable for what they are doing. Unfortunately, I did not use the relative success of the research log to assist me for the next four weeks with the picture book projects. Because of the lack of a daily accountability assessment and ambiguity in the research goals for the day, my classroom erupted into chaos, reminiscent of early IWT days. I tried to overcome this difficulty through rewarding those students who accomplished my goals for them, and punishing those who did not, which worked against me even more. Since I was trying to get my students motivated to complete their tasks, I needed to recognize rewards [and punishments] are not particularly effective at getting or keeping students motivatedto learn and are less successful than giving students more choice (Kohn, 1993, p. 226). I attempted to end every IWT period with a whole-class and partner discussion of successes and challenges, but it was difficult to start up and maintain very late into my mistakes. Not having a daily accountability measure was a critical error I made,

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 8 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom which I was able to use in helping me plan for the next projects and for anything I asked from my students in the future. Making a model means nothing to students if it is not accompanied with a logical and systematic explanation. Explaining their daily research goal and reading my sample page did not yield results on their own. Simply providing a model does not constitute modeling. I did not foresee the problems my students would encounter on their journey to finishing their picture books, nor did I break down and model the process of creating a picture book page enough. Since this project was complicated, I needed to guide my students through the process, preventing as much frustration as possible. If every part was not clear to me, it would not be clear for my students. If the students were too confused, they would stop asking questions and give up. Projects are not meant to be frustrating, for teacher or students. Unfortunately, because of my lack of preparation with the entire project, I did not foresee a lot of the difficulties my students would struggle with. My main difficulty started from a lack of consistency in format, expectations for the students, and their projects end product. Although I asked all of the students to create a picture book, the format of the picture book differed based on the general topic chosen, natural disaster or important person. A biography and informational story on a scientific phenomenon are written in two distinct formats. Despite reading an example of a picture book about a natural disaster in the story Flash, Crash, Rumble, and Roll by Franklin M. Branley and providing my own model, students struggled to come up with their own story about their natural disaster. My structure was unclear, out of order, and by the time I realized it, it was too late.

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 9 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom Too Much Structure I attempted to overcompensate my lack of structure by making the flipbook very systematic and procedural. I introduced a checklist of project completion for this in-class project, so students had some awareness of the progress or lack of progress they were making (See Appendix F). As expected, because of the consistency of format between internet information print-out, research questions, flipbook pages, and checklist, the students easily kept track of their progress everyday. It gave them a feeling of accomplishment and competency, fulfilling those needs, and providing for the more positive classroom environment I mentioned earlier. I made my research goal for the day a lot clearer for students to eliminate the ambiguities in instruction from the first project. Students needed to know what they were expected to do with every project or assignment given to them, as I learned from my previous struggles. I avoided trying to accomplish too much in a day, which was often what I did when I taught. I needed to ensure everyday allowed students to reflect on their progress, since this metacognitive process is essential to their sense of competency. Unfortunately, this over-structuring took the fun out of the project for my students. Not one of my students claimed the flipbook as their favorite project. None of them thought it was necessarily boring, but it was not an exciting and memorable educational experience. Laura, one of my more creative writers, gave lackluster, one-word responses like church and museum, despite being encouraged to write complete sentences with details (See Appendix G). Her short responses with no elaboration indicated how she and several other students were not able to creatively express themselves within the narrow confines of the flipbook project. Toward the projects completion, I realized my students felt good about finishing their projects, but they did not connect personally with their projects. They were merely restating

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 10 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom answers they found through their research. I tried to enhance this by allowing students to draw pictures to represent the ideas they wrote about. Not one of my students elected to add anything more to their project, which indicated how they wanted it to be over and forgotten. My students began their independent study projects by experiencing a lot of turmoil over minimal results with the picture books. They then experienced little turmoil with completed flipbooks, but were left with a low level of satisfaction for their results. When scaffolding a process such as this, I needed to help students achieve success quickly. Although students need challenging work in order to learn, frustration and a cycle of failure may set in quickly if students do not experience frequent success (Larkin, 2002, p. 1). With too much structure, the fun is lost in education. There needs to be some sort of balance between too much and too little structure. While the students still viewed the picture books and flipbooks as having too many requirements based on what I wanted, the mission dioramas allowed them to feel more in control of the projects destiny. The diorama provided them with flexible structure; I gave them initial guidelines (see Appendix H), but was not there to oversee every part of the projects completion. Bridging a Home-to-School Connection The diorama also brought into light the effectiveness of students being able to make a personal connection to what they are doing in the classroom. One reason, cited by several students, claimed the diorama was their favorite project was because it allowed them to spend more time with [their] family. Being able to work with their families over something educational was not something many of my students experienced in their schooling. Most

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 11 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom students told me it was rare anyone was home, and when their parents came home from work, they did not spend much time together. One example of a student who made a home to school connection was Jose. Jose received a lot of support at home, but never had I seen his family flock together like they did over completing a mission project. I met with his mom and sister separately about his progress, and both were situations where they came to me asking about the project. When he arrived at school the morning the project was due with his sister, they were both still gluing on animals and various shrubbery. I felt so proud of what he and his family were able to accomplish. Jose explained to me how his family had visited missions in Mexico and brought back many souvenirs, one of which, he included inside of his cornhusk mission walls. It was a bible with an image of la Virgen de Guadalupe over it. The reason many of my students, like Jose, invested so much of their time and energy on this project was because they were able to make a connection between what they were learning in school and with first-hand knowledge or information they received from family members. Antonio was another student whose family became involved in his mission project, and he utilized his funds of knowledge from home to become more closely invested in his mission. He turned in his mission over a week late, and kept telling me how he was lacking the resources to create his project. I provided him with many resources and told him to ask his family to assist him, since he had many older siblings and parents at home to help him. When Antonio finally asked his family for assistance, he gained access to a wealth of information to create his mission. His family also had visited missions in Mexico before he was born, but he did not find this out until he probed his family. Even though his mission was filled with cartoon characters, on the

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 12 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom front of his mission doors was a cross his parents had retrieved in Mexico for him to use (See Appendix I). I saw so much excitement in many of my students faces the day they came to school bringing their projects with their mom, dad, brother, or sister. The dioramas accomplished what I set out to do with my students in making meaningful and lasting educational memories. I know my students will remember making their missions in fourth grade. Forging a Personal Connection My students were not only able to make connections at home with the material they were learning in school, but could also apply what they were learning in situations occurring outside of the classroom. One such incident occurred during the time my students were working on their survival picture books. Sixteen of my students chose to research tornadoes for their picture books. On one cloudy day, as we were on our way out to lunch, a mini-tornado struck our school; all of my students went back and connected what they saw to their projects. Harold chose to write about this experience to build on what he had personally seen. His informational picture book on tornadoes turned into his personal account about tornadoes as he wrote, The wind was pushing the trees then my lunch [fell] to the groundall of the dust and [branches] and the leaves (See Appendix J). Harold chose to end his picture book with a caveat about being prepared for tornadoes to come because they can happen anywhere. He also included a section on how to be safe when tornadoes strike. Students, like Harold, used their newfound knowledge to assist them with completing their picture book. When my students applied what they learned in the classroom to an experience outside of the school setting, they gained a deeper foundation for the subject matter.

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 13 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom The majority of my students had an opportunity to visit Mission San Fernando Rey de Espaa. We had been studying the California Missions the previous week, but by the end of that time, my students were unable to define what a mission was. We were about to embark on the next two projects relating to missions, and I felt like they were destined for disaster if something did not change. The students who went on the field trip were able to expand their knowledge base on the subject of missions. They had a homework assignment the night after the field trip asking students to share the knowledge they gained from going to the mission. My students illustrated the immediate effects of visiting a mission in their homework, claiming missions are places [Indians] lived and used their [tools] that did not have clocks so they used bells (See Appendix K). I was unsure if this knowledge would transfer to their mission projects. When my students responded to the research questions, they could access the information they needed from multiple locations: internet print-outs, field-trip experience, and minimal knowledge acquired from their textbooks. One research question my students had to answer about their mission asked, What is the mission used for today? (See Appendix L). Most of my students were able to answer the question, because they vividly remembered when we stepped foot inside of Mission San Fernandos church and saw firsthand what this one mission was used for now: They use the mission as a church [now]and people come and visit. Students were able to apply their experience to what they were finding out about their own mission. My students also provided unique answers as to how to find out information about missions: looking at the internet, going to the library, looking through my flipbook, or visiting a mission. After having been to a mission, my students were well-equipped to answer questions

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 14 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom about their missions, and after researching their mission for two weeks, they transcended the roles of novices to become experts, as Collins et. Al. described (1991). Providing students with unplanned and planned opportunities to actually experience what they are learning about is an invaluable tool to increase their competency in a subject area. My students added personal experience to their knowledge base for each project they accomplished in my class and its effects were measurable and easily seen as shown in the examples above. IV. Implications for Teaching Making Dangerous Assumptions Making the jump from providing a class with whole-class instruction to independent study projects is no easy task. It is a big shift for students and for a teacher as well. It is easy to assume with any kind of independent work that all of the responsibility shifts from teacher to student. Deceptively, one might think the teachers job is simply to place the work in the students laps, and the students are now in charge of getting the work done. However, this is a very dangerous assumption to make. In order to give students independent work of any type, they first need to be taught how to work independently and have the structures available to complete it on their own. Teachers need to make expectations and guidelines clear as well as provide all the necessary resources to students. Once they master the skills necessary for independent work, with a relatively uncomplicated (but not easy!) assignment, then they can move on to more complicated tasks. Students need to feel a sense of accomplishment and competency about the independent work so one negative experience will not shape all of their next educational experiences. Facilitating independent study projects involves a great deal of planning, and I had no idea how much, until I was midway through the implementation of the survival picture books.

Nicholas Jason Hangca Page 15 of 15 Academic Writing Sample from Facilitating Independent Study Projects in the Classroom The complicated nature of the picture books, juggling two topics with two separate yet distinct writing styles, warranted planning out each topic. Because they were internet research reports, every website had to be checked for content to insure the research questions could be answered with that website. These are the necessary actions a teacher must take to have successful projects. A teacher cannot wing it and then hope and pray it will all come together in the end, because it will not. Forging Connections to Lives Allowing students to make connections to their own lives greatly assisted my students with their independent study projects and helps students with any classroom work. Students need to feel invested in what they are learning. One way to facilitate this kind of investment is to get parents and other family members involved. My students were able to shine and show off their knowledge to their parents on the mission projects. I should have involved parents on class assignments from the beginning of the year, because they did not have an opportunity for this kind of involvement until the end of the year. If there are possibilities to allow students to experience something they are learning about first-hand, then definitely plan for it. In order to fill our classrooms with experts and not only novices, students need to feel accomplished by actually participating in an event geared toward greater comprehension of a subject.